Friday, February 21, 2014

Surviving MIDTERMS: How To Take Studying to the Next Level

MIDTERMS are just around the corner for most people, and in another 12 weeks or so FINALS will be here and then the semester is OVER!! It’s like sets of waves coming into the shore; there’s usually a couple small ones followed by a big one, over and over again. For now, we can look forward to several stressful weeks coming up, followed by another couple stressful weeks in May before we’re granted our freedom to enjoy summer- BBQ’s, baseball (Go Giants!), beach trips, bare feet, and….badminton. (OKAY, maybe not the last one, but halfway through that I realized they were all things that started with B, and I ran out of good ones. Oh well.) Until then, we can look forward to weekends spent in social Siberia, drowning in homework and projects, studying like crazy and working our butts off.

Ever since Elementary school we’ve been lectured about the “right ways to study” and take tests. Most of us have been in school longer than we haven’t been in school. For people like me, you’ve been in school a loooong time. At twenty five years old, I’ve been in school for 18 of those years!! Can you believe that! (and with Grad school a requirement for my major/profession, It’s going to be many MANY more!) But one thing’s for sure; most of us have to study for tests at some point. We may think that because we’re practically professional at being a student by this point, we know exactly how to study. But the truth of the matter is that most of are missing some of the best resources and information that could help us take our studying to the next level.

In Psychology, because our emphasis is on the brain, we look into these concepts; knowledge, learning, memory, sleep- all things that are contributing factors to being a successful student. I have to say, if some of these ideas were presented to me in junior high or high school, I would’ve been a better student then! Or even at the beginning of my college career! Of course I find these sort of things truly fascinating, but outside of the pure enjoyment that it brings me to learn and research about these topics, they’re actually quite useful things to know.

The Best Studying Tips:

1. Sleep. Yes we’ve heard it all before, that sleep is essential to learning because being tired impacts you’re ability to focus. How many times have we been told throughout our schooling years to “get a good night’s sleep” the night before the test? And that somehow 8 hours was the magic number? Well, it’s true that sleeping is essential to learning, studying, and testing well, but it impacts more than just our ability to focus. And there isn’t a standard number (like 8 hours), in fact, everyone has their own “sleep number”. For some, 6 hours might be all they need, for other people like me, it’s more like 8 ½ to 9 hours. But what sleep really effects is our memory. Michael J. Breus, PhD. says that “sleeping helps to strengthen our ability to learn new things, and to convert new learning into longer-term memories.” But even more interesting is that when you study matters. In a study done with 207 students, researchers found that those students who studied right before they went to sleep retained the information for longer periods of time. “ These results indicate that sleep is most helpful to memory when it happens soon after learning new things. Sleep seems to have a stabilizing effect on newly learned information, rooting it into memories that last and clearing the way for new information to be processed.” So if you want to make sure those new concepts are going to stick, review
(cramming the night before does NOT count as review!) them right before you go to bed instead of checking Facebook or watching TV. (Studies also show that you shouldn’t use technology such as TV’s, phones, or computers within an hour of going to sleep because it stimulates the neurons in your brain and impedes with your sleep cycles.)
This is my actual day tomorrow...Of course I color-code things...duh. ;)

 2. Plan in out. I have to make a study schedule. Not only does it help me to actually do it, it helps me to be less distracted because there’s already a plan. Even if it’s a small session, have planned out. Not just in your mind, on paper, where you can see it.

3. Vary your study environments. Studies show that changing your locations while studying different materials will help you to remember them. Benedict Carey says, in article published by the New York Times, “Instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention.” So move from the desk in your bedroom to the kitchen table, or the outside lounge chair or the library! Such a simple adjustment can really make the difference.

4. Take small breaks. This would be a good time to implement the above tip. Get up, move around, grab something to drink or a snack, stretch, play with your pup for a few minutes, whatever you want, just occasionally step away. If you’re anything like me, your weekdays are pretty packed so most of your studying gets done on the weekends, which means you're usually studying for several classes over a three day marathon. The only way that’s going to work (or you’re going to survive!) is to take frequent breaks. I take mini breaks (5 minute intervals when I change subjects) but I also schedule half hour or hour breaks in the middle of the long hauls... it's decompressing time. A half hour is perfect for an episode of New Girl, which will totally make you happy and laugh and refresh you before you start again!

5. Don’t stick with the same subject for too long. Aim for an hour or two at the most on the same subject, then switch to a new one. Not only will it keep you from becoming bored and distracted, but it helps with memory retention as well!

6. Don’t drink too much caffeine. The last thing you want is to be antsy when you have a whole day of studying planned out. Switch to decaf coffee or herbal tea, a Diet Coke instead of a Redbull, or heaven forbid, a water. You’ll be grateful in 6 hours when you’re still plugging away without feeling like your leg’s going to fall off from its incessant shaking.

7. Listen to (the right) music. No the TV should not be on in the background. That probably seems obvious, but the type of music matters too. When you’re studying, you shouldn’t be listening to music with words because it’s distracting for your brain. You might feel like you’re just fine, but studies show that you’ll do much better at understanding and retaining what you’ve learned if you listen to classical music. We’ve all heard the “listen to Beethoven” lecture before, and for many students, that’s a turn off altogether. But it doesn’t have to be that way! I have a go-to study mix on Spotify and another on my iPod, which has everything from Beethoven to movie scores that I like. In fact, MOST of my study mixes are scores from my favorite films or T.V. shows, such as Pride & Prejudice, The Young Victoria, Downton Abbey, and Pirates of the Caribbean. It can be fun too! Just make sure there’s no words!

8. Flash Cards really do work. This is an oldie but goodie. You’ve heard the term “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” before right? (The grammar in that phrase makes me cringe, but it’s the truth.) Making flash cards still proves to be effective. But take it to the next level- start reciting them out loud. Recitation is active learning which engages your brain in a whole new way! In fact, Abraham Lincoln famously used to use this tool when memorizing his speeches. If it’s good enough for the Father of the Emancipation, it’s good enough for us! Plus, this is one Study tool that works great WITH A FRIEND!

9. Explain what you’ve just learned out loud in your own words. I still do this, because it’s been so effective for me in the past. Pretend like you’re teaching the subject to a class and explain what you’ve just read aloud. I used to do this with my mom, now I bore my friends with it on my lunch break at work. But either way, when we put something into our own words, we move the information from the short term memory into long to memory part of our brains.

10. Reward yourself! Studying can be stressful, so you’ve got to have some incentives to keep you going. Whether it’s a movie at the end of a full Saturday study session (my choice of reward!), going out with your friends when you’re done, an episode of Revenge or perhaps a delicious brownie, give yourself a little treat! (I always try to bake the day before a big study session so that I’m prepared!)   

Good Luck friends!! At least we'll get a breather soon, just keep swimming! 

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